Add one more uncertainty about autonomous vehicles: How do you get them to drive like locals?
We Americans are in the midst of an economic binge. Except this time we are gorging ourselves on smaller cars, clipped coupons, Wal-Mart trips, “stay-cations,” and cheap entertainment.
But if you drive the 2009 Escalade Hybrid, you realize it will someday be preferable to gag and purge such gluttonous frugality. As the largest luxury hybrid vehicle on the market to date, the Escalade serves as a salve to our miserly motorist psyche: We can have luxury and greenery too, minus the guilt.
That’s a boon for cowering consumers, and even better for the chauffeured transportation industry. Operators now are a bit beleaguered amid the rubble of the post-Greenspan economy and the pressure to find greener, cheaper vehicles without sacrificing the luxury trappings of chauffeured services.
The Escalade Hybrid achieves what I mystically like to refer to as the hallowed, Tao-ish “template of balance.” It ranks among the first generation of hybrid luxury vehicles, and as is the case with hard-working first generations of anything, the Hybrid provides a practical template for balancing future luxury expectations with economic and environmental needs.
Upon entering the Escalade Hybrid for a one-week test drive, I felt a bit swaddled as I stepped off the retractable runner and snugged myself into the 14-way power-adjusted driver’s captain’s chair. The rich, buttery black leather felt as if it could produce a soothing lather at any moment. The lucid, lacquered brown wood trim was so captivating it made me want to trash all of our household furniture and redecorate everything a la Escalade accoutrements.
Now, don’t let the pampered luxuries and electric flair fool you. The Escalade packs power. Unfortunately, my first chance to test the acceleration on a prolonged uphill was stymied by a little Toyota Prius in my lane. The hybridette bugger just wouldn’t budge faster, and I could tell the agitated V-8 of my Escalade wanted to pounce on that itsy-bitsy road mouse and move on. But I reigned in the frisky motor, realizing auto insurance would not cover such primal automotive aggression. In the coming days, the Escalade climbed California hills with aplomb, making me feel like a hardy mountain man without leaving the driver’s seat.
After the first day of city driving, I noticed that the fuel gauge hadn’t moved. That troubled me. The fuel gauge on my personal car drifts toward empty every day, and I only average about 15 to 20 miles on a weekday. Was the gauge broken? What if I ran out of gas? Well, the Escalade fuel gauge finally moved a few days later. The more accurate mileage ratings at www.fueleconomy.gov give the Escalade Hybrid mileage estimates of 20 city/21 highway.
The superme thrill of the Escalade Hybrid, however, does not come from guttural engine sounds or raw surges of power, although the engine knows how to escalate when prompted. On its best behavior, the Escalade Hybrid ran on battery power up to 29 mph while I drove on a flat roadway next to an urban lake. Wasted fuel from idling or creeping in traffic is virtually eliminated. In fact, nothing makes you feel cleaner than the sound of silence in bumper-to-bumper Los Angeles traffic.
The real wow factor on the Escalade occurs when you drive slowly through a neighborhood with the windows rolled down, and you realize the Escalade sounds indistinguishable from a golf cart. In fact, the gentle whoosh of the tires on asphalt sans engine noises brings a sense of motorist peace, or a Californish Zen, that lulls you into wanting to roll the black SUV onto a golf course and joyride over all 18 holes.
The sight of a big black SUV traipsing over the turf would enrage tee-timers, and likely invite hurled missiles of broken nine-irons and spiked golf shoes. But the Escalade Hybrid actually could serve as a kinder, gentler golf cart. For those golfers with flared tempers amid scorching heat, the contoured, lumbar-friendly seats and active A/C would bring a welcome respite from the gruels of the turf. And you never have to yank the golf bag out of the rear compartment and stuff it onto an open-air, over-glorified shopping cart.
Golf “Caddying” fantasies aside, the Escalade also educates. Its colored display of how and when the engine uses electric, gas, and combined hybrid power — visually displayed with colored drive trains and turning wheels — is fascinating to watch on the center console screen, certainly more so than a Katie Couric newscast. Call it the hybrid reality TV show. It would make any corporate client feel very green indeed.
For the chauffeured client, legroom does not pose a challenge if you are under six feet tall. But when I tried to “chauffeur” a friend of mine who stands six foot three, even with the right front seat moved all the way forward, the legroom was average and his hair grazed the ceiling while sitting straight. He also commented that the rear seats were a bit flatter and firmer than the front ones. Moving the right front seat forward also exposes the slide rails and wiring beneath the seat, requiring the passenger to watch the placement of feet.
Elliott Eichenholz, an executive with GM’s fleet and commercial operations, explained that Cadillac must use a bench-style back seat because the hybrid batteries are housed below it. Retrofitting the rear with two captain’s chairs is not an option at this point. Overall, the backseat is not a make-or-break issue, since even for a bench seat, luxury still prevails.
After one week of hybrid hauteur, I came to this sweeping conclusion, for both the American motorist and the chauffeured transportation industry: Never let go. Never give up your luxury. The Escalade Hybrid, whatever its nascent efficiencies, is rolling us to a future of more sensible energy consumption and unmitigated comfort and padding.
The Escalade Hybrid is big on intangibles. It feels good, and it makes us feel better about the environment. And while fuel and carbon savings may be moderate at this point, it at least aims our hearts toward noble goals: reducing noxious fumes and lessening our dependence on foreign oil. Plus the quiet solitude of electric-mode engines makes our surroundings all the more peaceful.
We are Americans, after all, and while we may be slow to notice our stupid mistakes — such as subprimes, credit default swaps, and Alan Greenspan — we eventually figure out what we like and the best way to get it. The Escalade Hybrid shows that once again Technology ‘R Us and will save us.
Just as we never really became a nation of Pintos, Vegas, and Chevettes in the 65/78 room temperatures era of the 1970s, don’t count on us driving Smart Cars, Priuses, and Fits all that far into the future. And those claptraps certainly don’t stand a chance in hell of invading chauffeured transportation. Subcompacts are just not what most people want or care to drive, nor what most of the adult population considers a good fit. Plus those little buzzy whirly-buckets are bad for our backs.
The Escalade Hybrid is a testament to the future of big, bawdy luxury cars that let us have it all: less fuel, fewer fumes, and lots of room.
How's The Escalade Hybrid Doing So Far?
You don't have to take my word for it; just ask America’s leading chauffeured transportation CEO. Scott Solombrino bought about 50 Cadillac Escalade Hybrids in mid-2008 for his company, Dav El Chauffeured Transportation Network, based in Boston. And he says he plans to order more. Solombrino estimates the Escalade saves his company about six to seven miles per gallon when compared to the fuel version and similar vehicles. “I think the gas mileage is significantly noticeable when compared to other lines,” Solombrino says. “Customers love getting into them. They are doing wonders with the customer base.” Dav El uses the Escalade Hybrid in place of sedans when customers request them. So far, no complaints from customers — only compliments.
Cadillac Escalade Hybrid Facts
Vehicle: 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid 2WD
Engine: 332 horsepower, 6.0L, Vortec V-8, two-mode hybrid
Battery pack: 300 volts fed by regenerative braking
EPA mileage: 20 city/21 highway
Fuel tank: 26 gallons
Vehicle weight: 5,932 pounds
Wheelbase: 116 inch
Length: 202.5 inch
Width: 79 inch
Height: 75.9 inch
Maximum payload trailer weight: 1,369/5,800 pounds
Cargo volume with third row seats removed: 60.3 cubic feet
Carbon Footprint: 9.2 tons of CO2 per year (out of scale of 3.5 (best) to 16 (worst)
Annual fuel consumption: 718.2 gallons @ 15,000 miles a year
EPA pollution score: 6 out of 10
Take a Green Ride Down the Las Vegas Strip
Add one more uncertainty about autonomous vehicles: How do you get them to drive like locals?
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